Heretics and Tyranny

History draws me, not because of a "condemned to repeat it" fear but rather out of basic humility. Surely someone at some time has wrestled the questions with which I wrestle and there may be answers, or at least clues, in the past. Unfortunately, the "everybody knows" history we superficially apply to quick opinions is not well suited to important, big questions like "how did we get here?", "where are we going?" and "what do I believe?" Fortunately, we have Ross Douthat and Jonah Goldberg to help out.

I've recently completed Douthat's "Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation Of Heretics" and Goldberg's "The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas." (For the record, I didn't even have to slip a Vince Flynn or Terry Pratchett book in between them). I enjoyed both books for the writing, the education and the reflection. They are quite complementary and I recommend them both.

Douthat spends the first half of his book describing the post World War II history of Christianity in the United States. My personal reference points on Christianity began in the late 60's and early 70's when my mother was taking me to the Church of Christ, seemingly, as they say, every time the doors were open. For me, like many, leaving home also meant leaving the church and, predictably, returning to church when I became a father, though this time at a Presbyterian church. Douthat's history rang true for me; it fit with my experience and perceptions and there seemed to be no twists or contrivances to make the history fit a theory or to exaggerate a point.

From that historical foundation, Douthat proceeds to describe four critical steps on the path of American heresy. First, there is an effort to define Jesus in our own terms, converting him from God to human, making him a historical figure under our control. Through definition we confine Jesus to our perceptions and prejudices. We remove the mystery. We own the holiness. Second, there is the effort to redefine the Gospel to something more palatable, more populist. We wouldn't want to make faith too difficult or the potential parishioners too uncomfortable. And, if you want to build a megachurch empire, a 'name it and claim it' prosperity gospel is a market proven winner. Then there is the great god substitute that we all do. It is the idea that we are god, that we can save ourselves, through science, through reason, through 'self actualization' ... whatever that is. If we only had the time and resources to do the 'hard work' of self-discovery, we could answer those big questions, at least for ourselves, which is, of course, the most important thing. Finally, as the natural extension of this self worship, we strive to become god for everyone else, using our faith to justify our politics with the idea that the right policies with the most well-intentioned outcomes will convert the masses if not to our specific faith, then at least to our ideals. Douthat describes two aspects of this urge. Democrats employ the messianic approach ... "our policies will save you!" Republicans use the apocolyptic approach ... "Repent!" Douthat writes, at the conclusion of his explanation:

... There is no single Christian politics, and no movement can claim to have arrived at the perfect marriage of religious faith and political action. Christianity is too otherworldly for that, and the world too fallen.

The intersection of faith and politics has been a frequent, and often gloomy, topic  here. Our church is part of a mainline denomination suffering with declining membership. Our congregation struggles to survive. Both would do well to ponder the big questions like "why are we here?" and "where are we going?" while considering the history and analysis in this book. Finding an answer would require an uncomfortably honest self appraisal and acknowledging that sometimes, when you're on the wrong path, the best thing to do is stop and turn around.

The tricky bit, as they say, is the honest self appraisal. Deluding yourself when defining the problems and premises or obscuring the truth behind your arguments, for whatever reason ... ignorance, laziness, apathy, tradition ...  may not prevent you from finding an answer, but it probably won't be the answer you need. This is where Goldberg comes in. The Tyranny of Cliches is an easy and entertaining read, but underneath the flippancy ( "We are indebted to Napoleon for many things. My personal favorite is canned goods." ) and the attention getting snipes ( "There is a little discussed fact, well established in the social science literature. Young people tend to be stupid." ) Goldberg is dealing with one of the big questions, Honesty.

The subtitle, "How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas," lets you know that the point is to expose the dishonesty of leftist politics, but don't make the mistake of categorizing this book as simply an attack on liberals. This is not a response to Al Franken. It's really dealing with the bigger questions of the premises behind and the arguments supporting the modern liberal, progressive agenda. It's not "your policies suck and you lied about them anyway," it's more like Vizzini and Inigo in "The Princess Bride" ...

Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

... though Goldberg goes on to explain what the words mean, and more importantly, how the (intentional?) misrepresentation of meaning props up their arguments. When the cheating lies are exposed, you begin to see how easy it is to mislead in the marketplace of ideas. The "Let Them Eat Cake" chapter is especially eye-opening. It's INCONCEIVABLE that Marie Antoinette wasn't being an aristocratic elitist with the 'eat cake' comment ... or is it?

Golberg entertainingly explains the amorphous concept of social justice, the smug superiority of the spiritual-but-not-religious, the underlying push to conformity in the name of 'Diversity!' and many other liberal bumper stickerisms. But don't slot this book in the 817's because what he's really doing is undermining every major liberal "everybody knows" argument supporting their ideas. In the process he is also giving us pause to think about big questions like "how did we get here?" and "what do I believe?"

Stylistically these books couldn't be more different. Where Douthat slowly builds from history to a reasonable interpretation to a calm analysis, Goldberg has a brief introduction and then wades right in like it's Han Solo and Greedo at the cantina. Douthat makes you want to get on your knees and pray for divine guidance. Goldberg makes you want to bitch slap some unthinking, smug liberal with a Maya Angleou anthology in a sock. The point of both books, however, is identical. Honesty. Douthat wants Christians to be honest about their faith, the sacrifices it requires, the otherworldliness of its origin, its application in this world. Goldberg wants honest political debate, a mature, even scientific approach that segregates policies that work from those that are easily sold as good intentions.

We cry about money and influence in politics, about how big "something" is "buying" an election, while most vote based on soundbites and supposition instead of principle. Are they voting honestly? We witness the decay of our religious institutions not because they have no value, but because we cheapen them and make faith (or the more culturally hip lack thereof) a checkbox on our Facebook profile. Ninety percent of Americans say they believe in God. Only twenty percent go to church on Sunday. Do you think the missing seventy percent are at the synagogue and mosque? Honesty, in faith or politics, is required to find the answers to the big questions. These two books are helpful if you're interested in honestly reconciling your faith with your politics.